South Florida Sun Sentinel from Fort Lauderdale, Florida on May 30, 2004 · 112
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South Florida Sun Sentinel from Fort Lauderdale, Florida · 112

Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Issue Date:
Sunday, May 30, 2004
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W! BOOKS! Novel 7: v SURPRISE: Ernesto Mestre-Reed finds humor in odd places. PhotoMarion Ettinger A woman seeking solace Underground son broke her heart. The Second Death of Unica Aveyano. Ernesto Mestre-Reed. Vintage. $13. 259 pp. By Suzy Hansen Sl'ECULCORRESI'ONDENT The first time Unica Aveyano died, it was from eating the broken shards of three paper-thin glass Christmas ornaments. The ornaments were among the few possessions Unica took with her from Cuba during the 1980 Mariel boatlift. Later, after Unica survives, her daughter-in-law, Miriam, deems the act Unica's first "death." " T hat's what Miriam liked to call her suicide attempt," author Ernesto Mestre-Reed writes in The Second Death of Unica Aveyano. "Anything with Miriam as long as she didn't have to deal with the truth." The "truth" that Miriam rejects about her mother-in-law is that Unica wants something that only the seconds before death can bring: "In that moment," Unica believes, "there is a peace and stillness that passes all understanding for us here above, a peace so treacherously well hidden from us." Much to Unica's dismay, Miriam; Unica's husband, Modesto; her faith ful nurse, Lucas, and her grandson, Patricio, are all trying to keep the leukemia ravaging Unica's body from actually killing her. The Second Death of Unica Aveyano shifts elegantly from early and midcentury Guantanamo to 2 1st century Brooklyn Heights, making stops in Miami during the height of the Elian Gonzalez controversy. Along the way we learn why Unica is obsessed with the sea, "her first companion in mourning," why she wants, so desperately, to get a glimpse of Elian before he's taken back to Cuba and, of course, why she wants to die. What we also get from Mestre-Reed, whose previous novel was The Lazarus Rumba, is a dreamy puzzle of a story, surprisingly comic even in its despair. Mestre-Reed is a languorous writer, and often his humor comes up unexpectedly, shaking the reader out of a daze. The novel also features the kind of eroticism typical in magical realism. One of Unica's most memorable flashbacks involves her son Candido's underground fort in the lot next to their Cuban home, an 11-year-old's idea of salvation from the terrifying days of the missile crisis. Yet even after the crisis dies down, Candido decides to remain in his burrow, where he becomes something of a neighborhood marriage counselor throughout his teenage years, "reuniting the most unhitched of duos." Instead of advice, he gives sex to unhappy wives, while their husbands (and a horrified Unica) watch. It is Candido restless, independent, indifferent who finally breaks Unica's heart. ... The Second Death of Unica Aveyano, however, is much more than a story of one old woman's misery. Mestre-Reed sometimes gets caught up in the dreary recesses of Unica's mind. But when he casts his vision outward, making broader assertions about family, country, exile and the Cuban experience, the novel also opens up. Mestre-Reed's mystical tale comes close to understanding our most baffling emotions, those concerning love and loss, and especially our own mortality. Suzy Hansen is a writer in Brooklyn. t ' FOUNDER: Alexander Hamilton mixed public service with scandal. Detail of John Trumbull painting of Hamilton Hamilton envisioned U.S. power Alexander Hamilton. Ron Chernow. Penguin. $35. 81 8 pp. American Machiavelli: Alexander Hamilton and the Origins of U.S. Foreign Policy. John Lamberton Harper. Cambridge University Press. $30; 347 pp. by John Freeman SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT During the Continental Convention of 1787, Benjamin Franklin suggested that there be a pause for prayer. Many delegates supported the move; many, that is, except for Alexander Hamilton, an attorney from New York, who had made himself unpopular by arguing for a robust executive branch. "He did not," the record shows, "see the necessity of calling in foreign aid." A self-made man who put his faith in himself and just a few close friends, Alexander Hamilton conceived of an America that was similarly self-reliant, built not on land but on capital. During his time, Hamilton was derided for being a Whig, a royalist, and an argumentative hothead. More than three centuries later, this view has changed very little. Although he created the modern tax and budget systems, conceived of the central bank, and lived a life so scandal-ridden he makes Clinton look hassle-free, Hamilton, has be.enyeri. BIOGRAPHY shadowed by the founding fathers he served under: George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. This spring, however, two terrific new biographies will move Hamilton to the forefront of American discourse and right into the pantheon of founding fathers. Ron Cher-now's magisterial Alexander Hamilton treats the first secretary of the treasury with the weight and gravitas of a 19th century novel, while John Lamberton Harper focuses on Hamilton's legacy in the realm of foreign policy, proving it was Hamilton not Jefferson, the Francophile diplomat who predicted the tenure and tone of America's role as a 21st century superpower. Readers looking for a book they can crawl into and live in for a month ought to begin with Chernow's volume. Drawing on more than 22,000 pages of the statesman's papers and archival research around the globe, Chernow resurrects Hamilton from the dust bin of history, weaving the story of his rise to power in America with that of his tumultuous family history. Hamilton's influence is all the more astonishing given his humble beginnings. He was born a bastard on the island of Nevin in 1755. During his first 14 years Hamilton was abandoned by his father, whose family formerly had aristocratic pretensions, made an orphan by his mother, abandoned again by one guardian who died prematurely and another who committed suicide. After all this, a court stripped him of his inheritance, leaving Hamilton and his brother utterly destitute. And yet, displaying his trademark tenacity, Hamilton bootstrapped himself to America, became a successful businessman, joined the revolutionary cause, and won praise for his heroics and organizational skills in the colonial army. As secretary of the treasury, the same qualities that allowed Hamilton to climb so high intelligence, stubbornness and a willingness to scrap for what he wanted also made him unpopular. Jefferson attacked him viciously, which led to more piling on. Indeed, Hamilton later became the first statesmen embroiled in a sex scandal re-; vealed by an 18th century i Matrudge,,., va vv Previous work on Hamilton has overlooked his relationship with wife, Elizabeth Schulyer Hamilton, his rock and his calming force, but Chernow brings her to life. Hamilton met her in Morris-town, N.J., in the winter of 1 780 and stayed with her until he was shot by Aaron Burr in a duel. She was rich, generous and painfully sensitive to the concept of honor that plagued her husband. John Lamberton Harper gives a brief tour of these details in his book, American Machiavelli, but focuses on Hamilton's propinquity to the great Florentine diplomat and philosopher, Niccolo Machiavelli. Like Hamilton, Machiavelli was born on an island and came from partially noble blood. Also like Hamilton, he carried with him the mixture of shame and pride of this fallen family line. Lamberton shows how Hamilton adopted a Machiavellian view of power and statecraft. In the 1790s, when America was climbing out from under a mountain of wartime debt and Jefferso-nians argued for a return to egalitarian, agrarian economy, Hamilton steered the country toward involvement in global trade and open markets. Hamilton realized well before any other founding father that America would inexorably become involved in European politics. Hamilton's legacy, both Chernow and Harper observe, is to create the financial means and ways for America to accumulate power to wield in this arena. His systems also allowed the nation to "not simply to survive, but to thrive, in war." In this regard, Hamilton gave birth to an America that doesn't just dictate foreign policy, but has the power to enforce it. And yet, it would be a mistake to label Hamilton a war-monger; he was a realist and he was prudent. He wanted the country to have options, but encouraged it not to overreach. While one imagines he'd be pleased by America's wealth today, our foreign policy might give him pause. "Evil," he once said, "is seldom as great, in the reality, as in the prospect." John Freeman, a freelance writer in New York, is on the board of directors of the atiorialBqokQritic Qircle. t

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